28 March 2012

BDS Referendum Defeated: Reflections

A version of this piece appears over at the Forward.


The defeat of the referendum in support of the BDS movement’s campaign to boycott Israel at the Park Slope Food Coop was a victory for peace.  Most fundamentally, and as was spoken of consistently from the dais at the Brooklyn Tech High School Auditorium, food coop members want peace--as passionately among themselves as they do for those living under violence and oppression in all corners of the earth.  In fact it may well be, years from now, that social historians will see the efforts to isolate Israel diplomatically at various food coops throughout the country are as much about the unique “politically correct” bourgeois but nevertheless self-satisfying values of the organic food movement as they are about realistically attempting to rectify injustices--felt by Israelis or Palestinians in their ongoing struggle for legitimate national self-determination.

After all, just beneath the surface of tonight’s debate among the more than 2000 coop members assembled was an absence of any discussion of those foods conspicuously absent from boycott lists, foods that are products of a variety of oppressive regimes around the world: Syria, China, Ecuador, Nigeria, Uganda--the list is potentially endless.  And if Israel, why not Palestine?  Surely victims of terror deserve their day in boycott court, no? It just may be that an organization dedicated to good farming and good eating can’t very well practically start picking and choosing its objects of boycott and therefore might as well just leave things as they are:  if you don’t like a product, don’t buy it. Many people tonight said just that.

After waiting for an hour to enter Brooklyn Tech, the arguments I heard once I finally took my place among my fellow coop members were overwhelmingly of the variety that stated, succinctly, “I like my coop. Despite our differences we learn to get along.  The food is good and cheap. Don’t mess with it.” 

On the other hand, in the ongoing work that our synagogue community engaged in over the past several  months--assembling a coalition of multi-denominational Jewish and Christian clergy who oppose BDS; sponsoring two large public forums in which divergent views could be expressed; hearing from foreign affairs experts like Elliot Abrams and Robert Malley; and assembling a panel at our synagogue with leaders from Peace Now, J-Street and the New Israel Fund, organizations that in recent years have been demonized and vilified for their efforts on behalf of peace and two states for Israelis and Palestinians, we were able to lead by example and demonstrate to the broader New York community that a reasoned and nuanced debate about the way forward for Israelis and Palestinians is possible.  We needn’t resort to exaggeration, name-calling, and hatred. Rather, we can, as intelligent and discerning beings, argue, listen, reason and debate--while struggling to find our way together toward peace.

I’ll add another piece to the puzzle.  On our recent congregational trip to Israel in February, when twenty-two members of our community traveled throughout the country, we met Israelis and Palestinians from the right and left of the political spectrum; we spent a day with Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in Tel Aviv; we marveled at the complex, challenging, and inspiring reality of a contemporary Jewish democracy in an ancient land.  And tonight, as the debate raged at the food coop, the listserv from our congregational trip debated these issues and watched the results unfold as well.  Tweets, Texts and Facebook updates contributed to the culture of immediacy surrounding this issue.  There is nothing like a genuine engagement with a genuine reality.  When it comes to Israel, it truly matters because it enriches the debate.  Platitudes fall away and differing perceptions of reality take center stage.  The more we visit Israel, the more we know Israelis, the more we know Palestinians, the less will matter the comfortable platitudes and vilifications of those who seek no peace.

That reasonable center is what I felt in the auditorium of Brooklyn Tech tonight.  The intellectually cooperative result of what happens when a community is willing to model tolerance of perspective, moderation in behavior, is that a community makes rational decisions to get along, to support even those whose views are defeated by the majority, to understand that there is always more that unites us than divides us.

Before I entered Brooklyn Tech for the debate and the vote tonight, I had a brief engagement with an anti-Israel agitator.  I know of no other way to say this except to say that he had hatred of Jews in his eyes.  You know when you know.  The blood quickens; defense mechanisms engage.  I can’t believe that in the twenty-first century, there are still those who believe that Jew are the root of all evil.  My first impulse--I won’t lie--was to break his nose.  My second impulse, after cogitating upon the fact that I was a father, husband, rabbi and leader--was to demur.  Thank God for second impulses.

It helped me tolerate the intolerable comments I heard from a few speakers tonight:  Jews control the media; Jews control Congress; Jews in America have shut down the debate about Israel.  Fuming while listening, I remained paradoxically calm, even bemused:  for in my profound discomfort, I was hearing what I didn’t want to hear.  Which meant, of course, that my opponents were subjected to the self-same rules.  And when the votes were counted, our side won.  Israeli products stayed on the shelves.  And in turn, we were privileged to articulate a way forward that was rooted in reason, tolerance, justice and peace.  While on one hand the “moral equivalency” rules that “everyone’s opinion is valid” struck me as classic cooperative sophistry, I knew that in the end, the reasonable argument would prevail.  That people would recognize that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are perfect.  But that with enough food and room around the table, there may be something to discuss after all.


The conversation continues at CBE next Tuesday April 3 at 7 pm, when we host New York CIty Councilman Brad Lander and Peace Now Activists Yariv Oppenheimer and Hagit Ofran, talking about the Haggadah, Passover and Social Justice in New York & Israel; followed at 8 pm by Jonathan Safran Foer and yours truly in a conversation about Jonathan’s New American Haggadah.  Hope to see you then!

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